As the cold descends and work hours get cut back and Val Marie returns again to being the hamlet of days before the park and tourists looking for suggestions of where to eat (“…well, there’s the hotel and the cafe. One of them should be open.”) I look longingly at my bookshelf. It is my hope to tackle two books a week through the winter. I calculated recently that I will have to read at that pace for fifteen years if I’m going to get through them all. But I also yearn for an evening or two where I get read to. I realized that yesterday when I went to mass for the first time in four and a half months. And Annette Hayes read Matthew 20: 1-16 and answered a question I’ve been asking myself: “Where did that phrase: The first will be last and the last will be first” come from?
Turns out it refers to the story of a man who hires some labourers. A few only make it through half a day. “They are the less favoured, but still do their very best,” says Fr. Joe from the pulpit. “You know when you’re waiting to be picked for the team and there’s always someone who’s last? And maybe that’s you? Nobody wants you because, well, you’re not exactly coordinated, or strong, or what-ever!” Fr. Joe says “What-ever!” a lot. But this landowner offered work to any man who needed it. And at the end of the day he paid them all equally, exactly the wage he was offering. Some of the young and hardy ones complained, having put in a full day’s labour. “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat,” they grumbled. But he replied: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual wage? Take what belongs to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? or are you envious because I am generous. So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
What made that reading particularly exciting for me is that I’ve been labouring over a collage for an upcoming exhibit in Maple Creek. In the picture are the original “gleaners” from the famous painting by Millet. I’ve mentioned these women before, they are described often as brutish, ugly, broken-backed, the poorest of the poor. They are the very, very last. My friend Page took a picture of me striking the same pose and I have been working with versions of this image, this last woman, for months. Running through my head is a contemporary version of Mathew’s words: “The first are still first and the last are still last, so what have we gleaned from our past?” I have this creeping suspicion that we have lost the point of community, of working together, that the recurring fear of the boogie man “socialism” has replaced our innate urge to be generous, as if to be asked to be so is unfair. Meanwhile, some of us post-modern secular hipsters love to denigrate all Christians as being fundamentalist literalist idiots. But there are those who are doing the social justice labour. They bring refugees into their community, they build wells in other countries, they open soup kitchens in the big cities. In fact, ever since Vatican II, you can barely find a nun willing to stay cloistered and hold down the fort with prayer. They are all in the street, working among those they believe they should have always been alongside: the last. Hell, they are the last, themselves.
To have shown up on the Sunday Matthew’s story was read reminds me that life is, first and foremost about showing up, being open and willing to let the story before us teach us the things we need to learn, unbeknownst to us. It’s not the same as pulling a book from the shelf and deciding which story you want or need at the moment, although that is equally rewarding. It has to do with not being first: to the finish line, to the buffet table, to supply the right answer and get ‘er done how you believe it should be done. It’s about listening, waiting for the others to be served, have their say, decide what we will do today.
I’m terrible at being last. I suppose I fear I’ll get lost or steam-rollered, or worse, forgotten, left behind. While I was never the last chosen for the team, I wasn’t the first either. So I learned to play to my strength, which was language. Speaking with conviction i became the champion gatekeeper orating or bellowing with litigator fervour. But in all the furour I realized one thing: we have the capacity to sooth, console, tickle, thrill and encourage with language. And as much as I love to write, and know others read what I’ve written, I love most the chance to be in the room when my words touch others and there is some kind of brotherly-sisterly recognition of a shared human condition. The last are still last because we cannot find that empathetic place, nor dare admit our shared humanity. We show sympathy, which is a patronizing ‘dear, oh, dear’ tsk tsk tsk at best. But sympathy, as any indigenous person will tell you, serves nothing, except to temporarily assuage a sense of confusion and shame in the sympathizer.
Somewhere, there’s a place where the last and the first and everybody in between, gets to feel like a soft and tender human animal again. Recalls drifting to sleep after a hard day’s ( or half-day) work under a warm blanket, or after a bath, all rubbed dry and ready for jammies, or in bed with the flu and a friend nearby with news of the day. If we are lucky, someone is there, with a letter ,or email in hand, a magazine article, or best of all, a book. And they begin to read to us.
Of all the performances I’ve performed, I think I love this one the most. Because, not only am I reading to you, but I’m reading about reading to you. So, while I can’t do so at the moment, I invite you to go read to a friend.
“Read to me. Wouldn’t that be subversive: to come home from work and be read to.
Don’t turn on the tv, don’t surf the net, don’t google for the answers.
Just close your eyes and let me read to you.
After all, included in the realm of the senses, is hearing.
The tongue caresses, soothes, reassures without actually touching.
How we love the feel of words as they pass through the air, making waves in the room, lapping up on the shores of ears.
Go ahead! Read me anything:
The morning farm report, the latest cattle prices, the weather warnings.
Read me recipes. Table of Contents. Instructions. Shopping Lists.
Read form the batting roster. From the rows of vegetables in your garden:
Oh potato! Pretty Patty pan! Sweet summer squash!
Turn stick figures on dry paper to audible blooms, I have a friend who, in trying to stop a mugging in his back alley, leapt onto a fire escape and, while descending into the fracas beneath him, missed a rung, and fell to the ground below.
He cracked his skull and lay bleeding for a long while before managing to crawl to the street and the doorway of his building. And even then, people stepped around him, inured as they were,
to hardship and semi-conscious bleeders perishing, daily, on Hastings and Main.
When his friends were notified we raced down to the emergency ward en masse, on our bicycles.
Are you family? Asked the head nurse.
Only in the sense of fellow artists sharing a co-op gallery, which, if not family, qualified as tribe.
So, I blurted “I’m his wife.”
Not fooled for a second she warmed: “If we send him home you have to keep him awake for the next eight hours.”
For a week, I read to him the books he read to his ex-wife, when she was having a nervous breakdown and could not sleep for days on end.
He came home to her one day hunched in the corner of their bed, hugging a bottle of red wine and a thesaurus. She had not gone to work. And she had bitten all her nails down til they were bleeding.
“Oh sweetie, honey what’s wrong?” he pleaded, rushing to her side.
“I’m afraid,”she whispered.
“What do you mean, afraid? Do you mean…Anxious afraid or threatened afraid?”
“All the afraids: anxious, cowardly, dependent, dismayed, doubtful, gutless, hesitant, impatient, insecure, nervous, recalcitrant, reluctant, shy, timid, unwilling, aghast, alarmed, appalled, apprehensive, reprehensive, and even awed. I’m concerned. And I’m fearful. I’m fidgety, frightened, horrified, hysterical, nervous, panicky, paralyzed, paranoid, petrified, pressured,scared, shaky,shocked,suspicious,threatened, worried, terrified …But, it’ll pass…
If you read to me.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home. Madonna will be doing a presentation at the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre in celebration of Women’s History Month from Oct. 1 – Nov. 5